While there are plenty of stories about the many people across Australia who rely on organ donation to live a healthy and happier life, few stories delve into the people who donate their organs and the families they leave behind.
There are currently 1,400 Aussies waiting for a life-changing organ donation, but just 2 per cent of hospital deaths occur in a way where organ donation is possible. Over the past year, 273 living donors were able to donate organ or tissue, while the remaining 510 donations came from people who had died.
For sisters Kelly and Brooke, they made the decision to donate their mother’s organs when she passed away at the age of 69. Kaye, who had been a midwife, nurse and single mother most of her life, had developed a blood clot in her brain after she underwent brain surgery to ease the symptoms of her Parkinson’s disease. Told by doctors that their mother would not survive without life support, the sisters didn’t think twice about donating her organs.
“How it came about was the cardiologist, the neurologist and the ICU doctor came to us and told us she had an irreversible bleed,” the sisters told Starts at 60. “We suggested to them, ‘Is our mother a viable organ donor?’ We just knew that’s what she wanted, because she spent her whole life giving to others.”
In the end, Kaye was able to save four lives by donating numerous organs. And, while she hadn’t updated her information on the official online register, she had ticked yes back in the day when people could express their interest on their driver’s licence. Today, the only way to be on the list is to join the national Donor Register. A status can be checked any time on the website.
Because her details weren’t online, doctors were legally required to check with Kaye’s family and they needed to give permission before any organs were donated. Although doctors will always check with family before taking organs, Kelly and Brooke believe the current opt-in service is confusing for many, including older Australians.
“It’s daunting for them. Even though they want to do the right thing, it’s hard work for them,” they said. “We find it really frustrating this is the process in Australia to opt in to help people.”
Because Kaye’s family knew what she wanted, it prepared them for when the time came to make a decision. Still, they understand it can be a tricky conversation to have with a loved one and offered tips when it came to bringing up the topic of organ donation.
“Approach it from a positive angle and the reasons why,” they recommended. “If you can make it personal, if there’s someone they know who received an organ, that strikes a chord in people more when they can relate to it, rather than be scared of it.”
Kelly and Brooke are also aware of the myth that doctors may not try their best to save someone if they know someone is registered as an organ donor, but it simply isn’t true. In fact, doctors took them through the detailed testing they did to show Kaye’s brain had stopped functioning and there was nothing more that could be done to save her life.
“They do a series of tests to make sure that person is brain dead,” they said. “They do it to make sure there’s absolutely no response. Stuff like icy cold water in the ear, testing reflexes.
“It’s two different doctors, 12 hours apart, that repeat the test. Both of us, we wanted to be there and see that she was actually gone. The police also had to come in and sign off on someone.”
Although difficult at the time, they admitted donating their mother’s organs was bittersweet.
“It wasn’t like her life and death was nothing. So many people, they’re just gone, whereas she’s still continuing on in a different way,” they said. “That’s incredibly comforting. We were thrilled for those people, but at the same time, we wanted our mum back.”
Still, Kelly and Brooke said they were proud of their mother and encouraged any families going through a similar journey to ask questions, be curious and obtain as much information about the process as possible.
For more information about donating, visit donatelife.gov.au.